Productions of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

Herbert von Karajan’s 1972 production with the Berlin Philharmonic has long divided critics because some believe the performance is too studio-bound and that there is not enough ingenuity in the production. But this recording endures because Karajan’s baton summons such wondrous charms from the orchestra, which in turn galvanize the singers. The brass are treated with due temperance, and Karajan commands the strings in such a way that respects Wagner’s famously extensive note at the beginning of the score. This spine-tingling performance captures both the power and the tenderness of the opera brilliantly. The thrilling conclusion to Act I is hammered out at a terrific tempo, rousing any budding conductor’s hands into the air as the music thrusts towards a close. In contrast, passages like the dream music in Act II are granted apt softness, and Wagner’s genius for gentle orchestration is showcased perfectly. As for the final Liebestod, soprano Helga Dernesch burns with white-hot passion, complementing the rich harmony that breaks through from the cellos.

Daniel Barenboim’s 2007 production at La Scala (available on DVD) marries an impressive set design with superb acting. Both are displayed admirably in the first act: the former throughout and the latter especially when the lovers are experiencing the effects of the love potion for the first time. The lack of a conducting score (bearing in mind that Tristan lasts more than four hours) proves that Barenboim’s understanding of the opera has improved greatly from his early recordings at Bayreuth in the 1980s, and this is bolstered by his claim to have conducted Tristanmore than any other opera. Soprano Waltraud Meier gives an intoxicating performance as Isolde. The supremacy of her portrayal lies in sheer dramatic conviction; she is a captivating actress and has the voice to match. Nothing looks or sounds forced. Moreover, the trickle of blood running down her head in the final scene is a masterstroke. It adds an original dimension to the Liebestod: a visible fusion of Isolde’s emotional and physical yearning. Wagner would probably have approved.

Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1952 Royal Opera production is generally the one that most other interpretations are measured against, as Furtwängler is often called the greatest Wagnerian of the 20th century. The conductor illuminates slightly different sounds to Karajan in places, which is worthy both of praise and criticism. It merits in suiting the orchestra’s sound to that particular set of singers (soprano Kirsten Flagstad, tenor Ludwig Suthaus etc), but this means that the total body of sound falls short of Karajan’s. The tempo, too, is sometimes accelerated in the wrong places. Nevertheless, this recording certainly stands the test of time. Besides, it contains all that spiritual darkness that Furtwängler is so respected for emphasising in Wagner.